At the far southwest corner of Washington State, the Columbia River empties into the Pacific Ocean. While best known to visitors as the place where the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery arrived in November of 1805, completing their goal to map the area between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean, there is so much more to explore and learn at Cape Disappointment State Park.
Getting to the Park
Traveling along historic Highway 101 takes me to Ilwaco, a small town with a rich history of fishing and logging in its own right. From there I take North Head Road west out of town. The road climbs up the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Cape Disappointment State Park has numerous points of interest, and the hardy can hike between them. But today, I decided to drive between the parking areas for Bell’s View / The North Lighthouse, and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. This was my first time at the park, so I wanted to scout out the options for a longer visit next time.
This part of the Washington coast is most often cool and frequently foggy, so ferns and trees are abundant. The trail to Bell’s overlook is accessibly paved, and there are frequent signs to share information about plant and animal life, as well as historical structures.
This out-and-back is a flat two-tenths of a mile. It is a gentle stroll for those who want to savor the fresh air and views at the end.
Fort Canby occupied most of the Cape from 1852-1947. As part of the fort’s mission during World War II, radar was used from this bluff above the ocean.
The cement building, which is in several layers descending down the hillside is still standing. Along this trail there are several other structures left over from this period, and although not maintained, they do give a sense of the time that has passed since this was a busy military area in the 1940’s.
Light Keeper’s Loop Trail
From the same parking area, I then took the Light Keeper’s Loop Trail. Another well maintained trail for heavy use, it first passes four square white building in an open field.
The houses were provided for lightkeepers and their families. While the North Lighthouse is still in use, it has been automated for many years now.
Lightkeepers are not needed to live on the premises, so now the houses are available vacation rentals. They are well situated not only for a relaxing family holiday, but for access to the hiking trails that head off to the north and south.
Continuing past the houses, the trail moves through lush ferns and flowers, with viewing spots along the way to take in the wide Pacific Ocean that spreads out to the horizon.
The North Lighthouse is usually open for visitors age seven and up. There are steep stairs to climb up and space can feel a little tight while going up and coming back down. It is currently closed due to the Covid pandemic.
At the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center there is a display explaining how lighthouses were able to project such powerful light out to ships. I was able to get a close up look at Fresnel’s invention – light beams traveling in all directions from a single source are captured by stacked prisms and lenses that bend and refract the beams to create a single beam of light that can be seen far out to sea.
The center is well worth a visit. The curators have created interactive displays to explore the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the thriving Chinuk peoples who have been on this land for centuries, and “The Bar” – a shifting sandbar that makes entrance into the Columbia River exceptionally dangerous for ships.
From the North Lighthouse, I can overlook Benson Beach to the south, and The Bar. Columbia River Bar Pilots are needed to guide larger vessels safely to Baker’s Bay and down the river to Portland, OR. Knowledge of the tides and long experience reading the bar’s movements make these pilots indispensable.
Memorials to those who did not survive a crossing and information on notable shipwrecks are also included at the Interpretive Center.
Waikiki Beach, Washington Style
At the base of the bluff, there is a break before the last cliffs above Cape Disappointment. Here, the waves and tides bring in enormous driftwood.
There is ample parking and a small store. I could take a path out to Benson Beach from here, and on a hot summer day this is a wonderful spot to wander with the cool sea air blowing in off the ocean.
Just to the south, perched atop a two-hundred-foot cliff is the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. It is no longer in use, and the trail to it has become unstable with the wind and weather.
The closest view is now from the deck of the Interpretative Center, tucked just out of sight behind a curve in the cliffs above the white outcropping.
The cape was first named Bahia de La Asuncion / Bay of the Assumption by Spanish explorer Bruno Heceta in 1774. The current name comes from John Meares, on his ship the Columbia, who in 1788 mistook the river’s mouth for a bay, hence the name, Cape Disappointment, that is still used today.
The Trail to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center
The parking area below the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center is small, with a tight turn at the end to drive back out, so large vehicles need to be mindful and trailers / RVs will need to pay close attention. But once out of the vehicle, the short walk uphill to the Center is worth it.
Wildflowers are abundant in the undergrowth throughout the spring and summer.
On the short path, plants and features are identified with signs in English and Chinuk.
For those not familiar with Pacific Northwest coastal trees, signs to point out types, like this beautiful Sitka Spruce add to the joy of the day. There is also a sign of welcome from the Chinuk, along with explanations and Chinuk expressions for deer, fog, and other plant life.
Outside the Center, more World War II era structures illustrate the amount of water and fog on the Cape. Vegetation that knows how to survive on a cliff face does not find cement buildings a challenge. In the seventy-five years since Fort Canby was decommissioned, the natural world has been busy reclaiming surfaces.
Views from the Interpretive Center Deck
While I did spend several hours in the Center, I was drawn to the deck that sits two-hundred feet above the Pacific on the west side of the building.
I visited mid-week during a day that had started out quite foggy, so there were very few other people on the deck. The views were unobstructed and it was quiet enough to hear the Double-Crested Cormorant colony nesting below.
Looking straight west, is The Bar. It doesn’t look like much, but between those two points of land is one of the most treacherous stretches of sandbar on the west coast. Even on this calm day, the more I watched, the more I could see current and water patterns that moved in directions I had not expected.
Off to the left, looking south, is the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. No longer necessary and on unstable ground, it has been abandoned to the elements. It stands atop the cliff, still visible on clear days for those who make the effort to come to this far west Pacific landfall.